Girls need the freedom to choose their own destinies. Education is the key to achieving that

Click to follow
The Independent Online

My mother is a teacher. She taught me that a woman's most empowering weapon is education. I was fortunate to have been born into a middle-class family in Mumbai. But I encountered many girls who were expected to get married at a certain age and, in doing so, call an end to their educational life. Their career paths were not decided by them and, in many cases, they didn't have a career.

The East is rife with blind faith and superstition. It is heartbreaking that, even today, certain cultures are still mired in age-old traditions that remain unquestioned. Some of these are oppressive. I had heard about female genital mutilation, but it was only after a visit to Sierra Leone that I realised how culturally accepted it was there. It's the same with girls in India being married off at an age when they're too young to understand what is happening. Or pregnant girls who have not been told what is happening to their bodies.

Where do you even start to address these challenges? Imagine the struggle of teaching people who have had hundreds of years of heritage and tradition dictate the path of their lives.

Often, the issues are tangled in history. You can't set about tackling early female pregnancy without addressing the lack of sex education or family planning in the generations before. And how do you explain how damaging female pregnancy is to a 14-year-old girl who is in the grips of experiencing it? Try telling parents that there are better and more humane ways for your daughter to bring home money than by forcing her into prostitution? All the answers lie in one cure: long-term education. That's what I hope to facilitate in the next few years with Plan International.

So far, I've been to Sierra Leone and will visit seven more countries this year, including Ethiopia, India, Egypt and Nepal. My mission is to spread awareness. In West Africa recently, I met a 13-year-old girl who harboured a dream to become a finance minister. By talking to her about my own experience and firing her imagination, I hope to have sowed the seeds of change. Often, it just needs a spark of inspiration: we saw it recently in India where the boxer Mary Kom, from a small village in Manipur, won an Olympic medal. Her journey inspired the country.

Over the next few months, I want to speak to girls and inspire them to take new messages home to their families. That's where the difference will be made. I want people to feel empowered enough to stand up for themselves. I want them to be able to say: "I don't want to drop out of school or jump into marriage. I want to finish my education and then chase my dreams."

It is impossible for me to imagine a life in which I didn't have the freedom to choose what I wanted. It suffocates me even thinking about it. I want others to feel that way too.

Freida Pinto is the face of Plan International's 'Because I Am a Girl' advertising campaign